The older man had the look of one who has done a lot of time. At first glance, it was obvious he wasn’t some construction worker here on a DUI, or hapless victim snatched out of his home, human flotsam washed up by the wave of public sentiment against domestic violence. Driving offenses and vindictive women seemed to be the leading cause of incarceration in most county jails back then.
I had just turned eighteen, and was in jail for the first time. I asked this old criminal about the twenty or so inmates who were standing in line at the guard station.
“It’s six o’clock. Biscuit call.”
My ears perked up at the idea of a biscuit. The jail fed you just enough to stave off malnutrition.
“What kind of biscuits?”
The older man had a way of talking out of the side of his mouth, barely moving his lips.
“Ding biscuits. Just go up there and tell the guard you want a ding biscuit.”
This seemed too good to be true. I wondered if they gave you butter, or even honey……to the back of the line I go.
As I get to the front, I see that that a nurse is handing out little paper one ounce cups. Those biscuits must be small. Well, better than no biscuit at all was my thinking.
The nurse looked at me and asked, “NAME?”
I tell her my name, and ask for a biscuit.
“I dont have anything for you.”
“Well, how come these other guys get biscuits and I don’t?”
Someone in line behind me taps my shoulder, and says,
“Hey kid. Ding biscuits are psyche drugs.”
I look across the day room and see the old convict suppressing his laughter.
I walk over to him, and before I can say anything, he tells me with a laugh,
“Sorry kid, but that was funny.”
I wasn’t really angry, just a little embarrassed at having been the butt of a joke.
“Hey, if ya want more food, put in a kite and ask for a counselor. Tell em you’re hearing voices, and give em the crazy routine. They’ll ship you up to the fifth floor psyche ward. You get your own cell, and they give you seconds and thirds on the meal trays. They figure if they give the crazies extra food it’ll keep em happy and make em less likely to kill em selves.”
The next week I was sent to the county jail psyche ward. There were no seconds or thirds on breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself, and bore the old convict no ill will. I could see the humor in it then as well as now. My gullibility and growling stomach had led me right into the loony bin.
While on the psyche ward I met a man who spoke only in rhymes. He was a soft looking white man with a kindly face. My first night on the fifth floor psyche ward, I watched him disassemble five bendy rubber jail pens and rub the blue ink into his hair. He told me in rhyme that blue hair was very much in fashion. He was being tried for beating his elderly landlady to death with a baseball bat. The next night he emerged from his cell bearing the marks of stigmata, for he had bitten his palms and the tops of his hands, chewed almost all the way through on both sides. He walked down the tier stairs with his arms outstretched, dripping blood, and once on the bottom floor, announced in a series of rhymes that he was jesus christ, back from the dead, then proceeded to draw a large red cross on the wall with his bloody hands.
The only upside of the psyche ward was the one man cell. The ding biscuits allowed me to sleep for long stretches of time in the peace and comfort of my own hovel. I no longer cared for food, as I often times slept right through chow. I was sleeping my time away.
Occasionally walking past the other cells, each with a number above the door, I’d glance in at the other loonies. Cell 5 became channel 5. Cell 6 became channel 6, and so on. One thing that seemed very common among these insane individuals was the habit of tearing pages from books and magazines into long thin strips like those that would emerge from a paper shredder. Hour after hour, the floors of their cells would come to resemble the floors of hamster cages.
I do not know why it was such a common activity, only that it was.
Dine and Dash Larry was another strange one. He was an obese homeless man in his forties who very rarely spoke. He had over 200 convictions, all for the same offense: he would enter a restaurant, order everything on the menu, and eat plate after plate of food. Once the check arrived, he’d very nicely tell the waitress that he had no money. He would would make no attempt to flee, and was always very polite. He would patiently wait in his seat for the police to come take him away.
Twice a week the inmates were handed disposable razors to shave with. After about an hour, the razors were collected by the guard, counted and inspected by them to make sure all were returned and still had blades, then put away until the next shave period. One time Larry broke the plastic blade guard off his safety razor and shaved his entire face, forehead, temple, cheeks, nose, lips, all of it off. He looked like an anatomical figure with no skin on his face by the time he had finished.
The anti-psychotic drugs became too much for me to handle after awhile. I found myself only able to walk with very small, unsteady steps, head down to watch my feet, it was the classic thorazine shuffle. After I quit the ding biscuits, it was almost a full month before I completely regained my faculties.
The drugs were by far the most unpleasant part of my stay there.